Graston Technique now used for breast cancer treatment

January 4, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
An unusual technique often used to treat sports injuries is now helping breast cancer survivors as well. It involves the use of specialized metal tools to dig deep into the muscle in search of scar tissue.

"A lot of times with breast cancer patients, where their surgery's been, they get a lot of scar tissue," says physical therapist Carrie Cameron as she works to loosen the hardened tissue around the chest and shoulder area of a breast cancer survivor.

To help her break up the scar tissue, she uses a set of medieval looking tools we first reported on last year. They're part of a system known as the Graston Technique, and therapists say the metal tools vibrate as they travel over hardened tissue.

Julie Wong runs PROactive Physical Therapy in San Francisco. Her clinic is increasingly using the Graston Technique and other deep tissue massage techniques to treat women who have undergone mastectomies. The issue is often encapsulation -- a side effect caused by the body's reaction to implants placed in the breast area after cancer surgery.

"So if this is a foreign object, you get scar tissue formed around the implant, you get encapsulation. The implant is going to look more bulbous like this. But the implant is not moving, so at this point we need to manually work on breaking up the scar tissue by manually moving the implant," she says.

Other types of breast cancer surgery, such as the removal of lymphs, can also produce scar tissue that limits mobility.

"And by breaking up those fibers you can actually improve mobility, decrease pain and increase range of motion," says Dr. Shelley Hwang, chief of breast surgery at the UCSF Buck Breast Care Center.

Therapies such as the Graston Technique can be painful, and it may also take a number of sessions to produce results. But therapists say the treatments can produce a significant improvement in quality of life for breast cancer survivors.

"As we release scar tissue, it allows them to be able to stand up better with better posture, move their arm better and decrease their pain," Cameron said.

Side effects can include bruising and insurance coverage isn't 100 percent, though the procedure is often covered as part of post-surgical rehabilitation.

Written and produced by Tim Didion